Ratlam’s Risky Rides And The Struggle For Safe Commute To Remote Villages In MP

In the absence of public bus service to remote villages of Ratlam, commuters are forced to rely on overloaded autos, vans and unregulated private buses to reach their destinations

S R Pareek

Ratlam (Madhya Pradesh): The sight of women from the Bhil community sitting on the roof of an overloaded van, and hanging on to their luggage and dear life as the vehicle traverses hilly roads, is pretty common on the 50 km stretch of the Ratlam-Shivgarh-Bajna road in a predominantly tribal area bordering Rajasthan.

An old joke about an Regional Transport Office (RTO) officer telling an auto driver that he won’t levy a fine if he showed how he managed to accommodate 20 passengers in a seven-seater still makes residents of Ratlam laugh, even as they live this reality every day.

The roads are damaged and steep, and covering 50 km takes over two hours. The private bus service that starts at 9 am ceases after 5 pm, Bajna and Shivgarh villages being the last stops.

Those who live in the villages farther away have to rely on overloaded autos and vans. This includes government and private employees who have to commute to and from Ratlam every day. The hilly, potholed roads are frequented by these overloaded vehicles many times a day. Everyone, including women and children, boards these crammed autos, some sitting in the trunk while others even climb atop the mini-vans and sit on the luggage racks on the roof.

Ahtesham Ansari, a supervisor with the Women and Child Development department in Ratlam, commutes to Bajna to oversee the functioning of village anganwadis every day. She catches the bus at 9 in the morning, reaching the village a little before noon.

She tries finishing off her work before 5 pm so that she can take the last bus home.

“This is a remote area, so I cannot miss the 5-o’clock bus, else I have to shell out over Rs 2,000 to book a private cab or take the crammed autos or vans, which do not look safe,” she said.

Capitalising on the situation, autos charge arbitrary prices whereas bus fares are capped at Rs 50.

“When I have to go to the centres located beyond Bajna, where buses don’t go, I have to pay Rs 100 per trip to shared autos, even though other villages are less than 10 km away. The anganwadi workers based in Bajna prefer to travel to these centres in the remote villages riding pillion on their husbands’ motorcycles as it is more economical for them,” Ansari added.

Hakru, a resident of Kelkachh — the last village in Ratlam before the state border with Rajasthan — goes to Bajna to work as a daily-wage labourer. To catch the bus to Bajna, she commutes to Gadkhange Mata area, 13 km away, in a shared auto, and then boards another one to Bajna, 20 km away.

“There are only two buses on this route and the ticket costs Rs 30. But we travel in shared auto, even though it is crowded, as we can bargain with the drivers. When they see we are labourers, they charge us less. But in the bus, even if the fare is 2 rupees short, the conductor asks us to get off,” said his wife Geni Bai.

“Besides, the bus drops us at Bajna and we have to take another auto or van to reach the village where we find work. These shared vehicles drop us to the exact destination, eight or 10 km beyond Bajna,” added Hakru.

Some commuters prefer these crowded vans and autos as they can ask the drivers to stop or slow down at random locations so they can spit out their gutka — a luxury they don’t get if they are travelling by a bus.

The situation is even more challenging for the residents of 24 villages lying on the other side of Mahi river. Residents in the dhanis (small cluster of houses) of Raipada and Jholi Chandragarh panchayat rely on boats to cross the river, and then catch shared vehicles to reach Bajna, from where they can avail of the private bus service.

The lack of a bridge over the river makes the situation more challenging as boats are the only source of commute to the other side. Anganwadi worker Kavita Dodiar, who pays Rs 10 for the boat ride and Rs 20 or above for van, said that it takes her around two hours to travel 15 km to Bajna.

Raipada Gram Panchayat Secretary Babulal said that Setu Nigam (Madhya Pradesh Rajya Setu Nirman Nigam Ltd) has sent a Rs 30-crore proposal for construction of a bridge across the river, but it is yet to be approved by the state government.

No Check On Dilapidated Buses

As per RTO records, over 20 private buses ply on this route but the actual number is close to 35. There is none to keep a check. Besides, there is no public transport on this route.

The buses on this route are in a dilapidated condition and, according to locals, they don’t even have fitness certificates. Running on hilly, uneven roads, these shabby buses pose a considerable risk to the safety of passengers. Instances where passengers are asked to push the bus to the side of the road after a breakdown are pretty common here.

In the last four years, three major accidents have taken place where buses have overturned and landed in a ditch, though there were no casualties.

“It is not like the department and officials responsible for this are not aware. The district administration turns a blind eye to the issues barring once or twice a year when there is a state-level campaign. They confiscate some buses and levy fines on drivers or bus operators for the public eye and things go back to normal once the buzz dies out,” said a local of Bajna village on condition of anonymity.

He added that overloaded autos and vans pass in front of the police station every day but no police personnel ever bothers to intervene.

Speaking to 101Reporters, Ratlam District Transport Officer Deepak Manjhi said the RTO had confiscated and cancelled the licence of seven buses on this route that were no longer fit for use.

“There is a shortage of staff here at the district office as there are just two people — me and a clerk — who manage everything from licence tests to renewal of licences and registrations etc. This makes it difficult for us to keep a tab on the situation and spare time to go out on the field for an inspection,” he claimed.

He added that while the route was unserviceable, these run-down buses and overloaded vans are the only way residents of the remote villages could commute to work.

“The proposal for transportation prepared by the gram panchayat has to be approved by the government as many private operators don’t want to operate buses on these routes given the shabby condition. We cannot start cancelling the bus licences unless there are alternatives in place,” he said.

Speaking about the allocation of routes to private bus operators, Manjhi explained that usually panchayats, after assessing the demand from their constituents, send a proposal to the zilla panchayat which is then passed on to the RTO. While the RTO may issue permits and allocate these routes to private operators, they may still refuse to ply these routes if the roads are bad or there aren’t enough passengers, he said.

Further complicating the matter, it has emerged that certain groups of auto/van drivers may even pay off private bus operators so they can monopolise transport options along that route.

(S R Pareek is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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